The contemporary classical singer : why new music is necessary in 21st-century vocal pedagogy

Stephens, Jacqueline Page
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Today, vocalists in the U.S. are expected to perform in a variety of styles from bel canto to contemporary classical, musical theater, experimental, pop, etc. This shift from specialized technique to pluralistic embrace has been compelled by a number of factors: increased social awareness and criticism of classical music’s elitist past, growth of minority populations in the U.S., the reliance of non-profit performance organizations on selling tickets in large venues, habitual programming of canonic “favorites” that may resonate less with younger audiences, and the subsequent decline of audiences. These factors have seemingly intensified since public performances have returned following the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to show that they are moving beyond the elitism of the past, composers and classical music organizations have begun to brand their projects as “anti-establishment,” more frequently embracing popular music styles, big tech, and more relevant or accessible sounds to draw in new audiences. Traditional approaches to vocal pedagogy in higher education have endured, and with few exceptions, sidelined contemporary classical repertoire or vocal techniques. In this paper, I analyze industry trends, cultural pressures to move beyond the canon, and economic opportunities singers could more widely enjoy if afforded not only pedagogical knowledge related to contemporary works, but also foundational tools for continued research and promotion of these works. Through extended interviews with professional singers, composers, and conductors in the “new music” scene, I discuss the vocal strengths and deficiencies that working artists in the field observe and provide learning tools for taking on compositional challenges of new music. Ultimately, I argue that voice teachers have an ethical obligation to incorporate contemporary repertoire and pedagogical tools into voice lessons early and often. Because some audiences are drawn to programs of familiar and beloved works, canonic works will continue to be performed. However, an obsession with repertoire of the past can limit the growth of singers in regard to expressivity, flexibility, economic opportunity, and the ability to engage with contemporary music. Performing new music that explores themes that are relevant today, reflect on contemporary social and political issues, and that incorporate a diverse array of styles and genres is not only beneficial to singers, but to contemporary audiences as well.